The right words at the right time… (What to say when a friend has chronic or serious illness)

May 11, 2016

etiquette serious illness

What do you want to hear when you’re facing a serious illness? Or even a chronic illness? I have seen from personal and professional experience that news of the diagnosis like cancer, AIDS, or other life-threatening illness leaves some of us speechless or awkwardly twisting in the wind trying to find the right words to express our sympathy for the person going through this condition. Well not everyone is the same, and I recognize that, there are some things that are not that helpful to hear when you’re facing a life-threatening illness, or if you are the loved one of a person facing that illness. These are just some rough guidelines if you are in the situation.

Conveying warmth, concern, and a desire to help are all acceptable and even welcome, usually. There are ways to do it that make the person feel better than others. For instance, if hearing the diagnosis brings up a sense of powerlessness, horror, or anxiety, you might want to keep that to yourself. There’s a fine line between sharing your anxiety with the other person and being stoic and even nonchalant. You can share your concern by saying, “that’s a really big challenge her facing. How are you dealing with it?” That way, you respect the person and their wish to label it as a sickness or one of life’s many challenges. It’s important to remember that just because the person has an illness, doesn’t mean they have one foot in the grave. Even a diagnosis as serious as cancer doesn’t have to be a death sentence, and there are many things that a person can do to take care themselves while there convalescing from their illness. If you feel very anxious about it, you can always talk to someone else about it while respecting that person’s privacy by not mentioning them by name, or better yet, try to manage the anxiety within yourself and realize that you’re worrying about them is not going to make them healthier.

Obviously, allow the decision to tell other people about the diagnosis, to the person with the diagnosis. The last thing this person needs to deal with is gossip and unwanted pressure from other people. Respect the person’s privacy and allow them to tell who they want or don’t want.Sometimes the person just wants to be left alone. Other times, they don’t want to be treated with kid gloves or as someone who deserves pity and special treatment. It is their decision, not yours.

You can offer a person in the situation to listen, hang out, help with chores, or spend time with them during the treatment, which ever you feel comfortable with. Please don’t offer something that you don’t really want to do out of a sense of obligation, especially if you will later resent having done it. If you were suffering from chronic or serious illness, would you want someone to do something nice only to have them resent you for it later or feel like you owe them? I’ve even heard of people holding favors done for sickly person against them in a tit-for-tat situation. I’m sure, gentle reader, that you would never do such a thing, but these things do happen . Don’t impose your help on the other person, for they might want privacy for this time. Simply offer and allow them to accept or decline. No event inside they appreciate it, but they might be so overwhelmed by what they’re going through that they can’t be perfectly polite or gracious at that moment. Accepting a diagnosis like that can be very emotionally taxing, and sometimes people will lash out in anger or suddenly become very sad. Allowing them to express what’s going on non-judgmentally is perhaps the biggest gift of them all.

Hopefully this gives some idea of how to approach such a delicate situation. If you can think of what you would feel comfortable with if you were in the other person’s shoes, it might help guide your actions and allow you to be there for the person in a clean, heartfelt way.